Tag Archives: Brussels

Home, again

In 2019, I completed the process of acquiring Belgian nationality. I had started it the year before, in recognition of the fact that it looks like I am going to stay in my beloved Brussels for the long haul, and in an effort to insulate myself from any bad Brexit-like idea Italian politicians might have. It was no big deal: a bit of bureaucracy, a couple of hundred euro, and the Belgian administrative machine was in motion.

The months passed. And then a few weeks ago, I received a surprise invitation from the mayor of Forest (one of the 19 Brussels communes, the one where I live). He was delighted that some of its foreign residents – myself included – had recently acquired the Belgian nationality. Would I go out to the city hall for a moment of conviviality with him and his colleagues? I RVSP’ed sure, what a nice idea. And tonight, I went.

I was expecting a formality. A short and generic speech from some mayoral underling, followed by some kind of refreshment. I was wrong.

The whole political level of the city government was there. The mayor, and six of the nine échevins, in all their multi-ethnic glory. Nobody was in a rush. They went out of their way to explain that the city hall’s employees, and they personally, were there for the citizens, and that all doors were always open. When a lady reported problems with finding affordable housing, they all stepped up, explaining what each one’s office could do to attack her problem. Local government, at its best.

But it was the humanity of it all that stroke me the most. They seemed genuinely interested in talking to each one of us individually, and delighted that we had chosen Forest as our (permanent, given we had applied for citizenship) home. They even seemed to like us.

People liked them right back. Several new Belgians stood up to acknowledge the quality and humanity of the services they had received, as foreigners first, as Belgians now. One lady beaming, announced that she used to work black, but now her citizen status opens new opportunities. Everyone laughed, and the mayor smiled and said he was sorry she had to do that, and happy that now she was in the clear.

It turned out that Forest has 56,000 inhabitants representing 144 nationalities. In 2019 alone, about 500 residents, like me, acquired the Belgian nationality. These are incredible numbers, that expose the lies about the “migration emergency”, the “invasion”. Over half of Brussels residents were not born Belgian (source). And yet here we are, with our mayor welcoming us to the large, colorful, slightly shady Brussels family (yes, shady, since our cultural heroes are people like these – and proud of it!).

Way to go, my fellow Belgians. No, this country is not perfect. It can be quite dysfunctional. But these things are fixable. What matters most to me, is the ironic, tender humanity you so often manage to infuse in life here. If this is Belgium, I am happy to have chosen to make my home here, and proud to be one of you.

The invisible city: chronicles of love and defiance in Brussels

(written on March 22nd 2016, day of the Brussels attacks – translated from CheFuturo

Here we go again. This morning’s explosions have plunged Brussels back into the lockdown we already went through in November 2015, after the Bataclan attacks in Paris. The airport is closed. Railway stations have been evacuated. The public transport network is down. Cinemas and museums are closed. The Université Libre de Bruxelles has been evacuated. No one is allowed in or out of schools. The government has declared a state of maximal alertness and asked everyone to stay put.

Since November, we have a name for this state of things: . It’s not an easy situation to be in. But neither is it desperate. As in November, as always, the images you see on TV are not representative of life in the city. In my neighborhood – between Saint-Gilles and Forest – shops are open. The weather is sunny, so outdoor tables of cafés are popular with my fellow Bruxellese (the photo above is fairly representative of a normal day); they shake their heads and exchange small tales of their life in the times of this new Lockdown.

In November, the city had demonstrated its level-headness and a very Belgian surrealist sense of humour. The police had asked not to share anything about its movements as it raided the city for suspects; as a response to that, we inundated Twitter of cat photos. I was delighted: this was a funny, deeply human way to collaborate without keeping your head down and staying put. I am sure that the same spirit will show up this time around. Already funny-defiant images are showing  up on social media, and the Bruxellese use Twitter to offer hospitality to people who have come for work and got stranded in the city.

The truth is, this city can not yield to fear of terrorism. Not in the sense that we do not want to (though we don’t); not even in the sense that we have a moral duty not to (though we do). We are actually unable to do so, in a very practical way. I am not aware of any other city that, though it is relatively small (1.1 million inhabitants), is so diverse. Walking the streets of Saint-Gilles you meet people from all over the world, and hear the sound of many languages: French, Dutch, English, Arabic, Portuguese, Polish, Italian, Spanish. You can attend Catholic Mass in Portuguese, and driving school in Polish.

According to Statistics Belgium, on January 1st 2015 Brussels had 771,000 residents of Belgian nationality, and 398,000 non-Belgian residents. With over one third of the population not holding Belgian citizenship, that’s as diverse as it gets outside of Dubai (which is uncomparable on many levels with any European city). The ten most common nationalities among non-Belgian Bruxellese are: French, Moroccan, Romanian, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Bulgarian and Turkish.

These figures underestimate the foreign presence in Brussels, because individuals holding double citizenship are counted as Belgians. It turns out that only 44% of residents was holding Belgian citizenship at birth (source 1, source 2). This means that a mind-boggling 22% of residents are naturalised Belgians. Most naturalised citizens come from Morocco, Turkey, Congo and Guinea. European Union citizens normally don’t bother acquiring Belgian citizenship, as EU magic allows us to enjoy most rights granted to citizens anyway. It is estimated that 25% of residents are muslim.

This is the Brussels I live in. If you only ever hear about it because of EU politics or the recent security problems, it is invisible to you. But that does not make it any less real. Here, yielding to terror and xenophobia means not waving hello to your Romanian or German neighbour; change your favourite grocer (Moroccan) and that café with tables in the sun (Italian). In the home where I live, we would have to discriminate each other: we are two Frenchmen, a Pole, a Swede and me, an Italian. It’s unthinkable. Brussels cannot go xenophobic: it’s already over the tipping point. It is Europe as Europe could be, and will be if we do not lose sight of our common journey.

So, it’s no surrender for us. Tonight we will hold an open house. We’ll have friends from Egypt, America, Italy, Belgium – every one of them a Bruxellese. We will raise our glasses in love and defiance, and drink to the city that makes us brothers and sisters without requiring us to be the same. In time, the Lockdown will be lifted and we’ll take Brussels back, just as we did in November. The people responsible for this tragedy will be arrested and punished, as happened with those responsible for the Bataclan attacks in Paris. This is Brussels, sweetheart. We are not going down. Wherever you are, raise your glass with us.

Photo: sam.romilly on Flickr.com

Lifestyle innovation in Brussels: new space, new people

Almost exactly three years ago, as we were planning our move to Brussels, Nadia and I decided to look for flatmates. Most of our friends and family members were rather puzzled: not many couples decide to share their apartment, though they can afford not to. We, however, thought it completely logical. Nadia is Swedish and I am Italian: at the time we lived in Strasbourg, France. That made us a migrant nuclear family, completely cut off from the network of emotional and material support that our friends and families of origin could offer. We were simply too isolated in our Strasbourg apartment, nice though it was; and we decided to try something different. So, we rented a much bigger apartment than we needed and asked the Internet for someone to share it with.

Three years on, we think the experiment worked. For the last two years we have been living with Kasia and Pierre, a young couple of expatriates (Kasia is Polish, Pierre French). We really enjoy the co-habitation: the home feels more animated, and not a day goes by that we don’t chat at least a little bit, over coffee or breakfast. We enjoy the big, airy living room overlooking the city. And, frankly, we appreciate that our lifestyle is really good value for money: thanks to the economies of scale implicit in family life, we pay a reasonable rent for a really nice space.

Along the way, we discovered that what makes our living together so enjoyable is that we are so different from each other. We come from four different countries; we are of different ages (Pierre, the youngest, is 19 years younger than me, the oldest); we have very different jobs (Kasia is a dental nurse, Pierre is the manager of a fashion boutique, whereas Nadia and I both belong to the “what is it that you do, again?” tribe); Nadia and I travel a lot, whereas Kasia and Pierre tend to be in town most of the time. This works well on many levels. On a purely practical level, when we travel we love the thought that the home is not empty, and in the event of some misfortune (think plumbing failure) they can intervene; and I am sure they enjoy the privacy and the extra space. We pay for electricity, phone and the Internet, they pay for the cleaning services – less paperwork to do. We have an extra room, which normally serves as Nadia’s and my office; but it doubles up as a guest room for the guests of all four of us.

But there is more to co-habitation than practicality. Kasia and Pierre are lovely people: and, crucially, they are different people from Nadia and myself. We live out the city in different ways. We have different takes on almost everything, from French politics to Belgian beer. Comparing notes with them is always interesting, and I really value their insights and wisdom. Not that we spend all that much time together. I think our co-habitation unfolded in the right sequence: we started by a default attitude of rigorous mutual respect of each other’s privacy and spaces. Then, over time, we grew closer, started to share the occasional meal, the occasional outing; we met each other’s friends and families, lovely people to the last one.

It’s working well. So well that, when a month ago our landlord announced that he was reclaiming his apartment and we would have to move out in the summer, we decided to stay together, and to look for a new place as a four-people household. More than that: we are even considering expanding. If four people can live so well together in a larger apartment, how would it work with five, or six, or seven in an even larger one?

If you wonder about this, too, get in touch. We are considering including in the household one or more friendly, respectful people of any age, gender, nationality or walk of life. Of course, we do need to find the right space, so that we have common areas for conviviality but also adequate private areas for privacy! If you see yourself in this picture, come over for coffee and let’s talk. Worst case scenario, we’ll have had coffee in good company! And if you know of a large apartment (at least 3 rooms and 2 bathrooms, ideally more) in Brussels (ideally Saint-Gilles, Ixelles, Etterbeek, Anderlecht, Forest or Uccle) that we could rent, we will be grateful it you let us know. Lifestyle innovation needs space.

We do this for totally egoistic reasons: we enjoy each other’s company, we save money, we live in style. At the same time, we are aware that we are working our way through solving a global problem. Planet Earth has 230 million international migrants; intra-EU migrants like us are 8 million. Many of Europe’s young people simply cannot afford to hold their ground: their work, education paths, and love lives lead them to migrate. When they do, they, like us, lose their supporting networks, and it is really hard to rebuild them. Living together, especially in diversity – the older with the younger, the sporty with the mobility-challenged, the academic with the blue-collar worker – becomes a platform for sharing our different abilities, and being able, as a household, to solve many different problems, both emotional and practical.

None of this is new. You have heard it all before – at social innovation conferences and workshops, for example, and typically by people who live in middle-class nuclear families. But we have decided to walk this particular talk; it will probably not be the right choice for everyone, but it is the right choice Nadia, Kasia, Pierre and myself; and I strongly believe it might be right for many others. So, who wants to join?